Rembrandt Van Rijn Belshazzar's Feast
In lucid and arresting form, Rembrandt firmly imprinted his own idiosyncratic touch onto the embryonic Baroque style with the exuberant Belshazzar's Feast, painted around 1636-8. It is an exploration of tension and drama, situating the action, like many of his other canvases, in the days of Biblical lore. Yet, characteristically, Rembrandt's Old Testament is not tempered by a Christian worldview; it remains firmly, almost stoically faithful to the Jewish tradition. Sourced from the Book of Daniel, Rembrandt's painting tells the story of the King of Babylon whose wealth and luxury is built on the plundering of the First Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed and looted by his father. During a grand feast the King Belshazzar uses goblets taken from the former Jewish Temple and, while he revels in triumph, a ghostly hand appears and writes on the wall a foretelling of his imminent death, judgement, and the destruction of his kingdom. So firmly has the story remained ingrained in Western consciousness that it has given many languages a particularly ubiquitous phrase which in the English incarnation became: 'The writing is on the wall'.
The King is presented as an archetype of intensity and shock, the vacuous revellers behind him caught in much the same state of animation. However, he is reacting to the event in a physical rather than emotive manner, as if he were being confronted with a bodily assault. Rembrandt's familiarity with his subject was forged in a country unique among its neighbours. Upon moving to Amsterdam Rembrandt began to acquaint himself with the Jewish population, a phenomenon rare in the Europe of his day. Most Jews were still legally banished from the majority of nations. His home of nearly two decades was located on the outer rim of the Jewish quarter and the artist became close friends with a number of Rabbis, one of which was the printer Menasseh ben Israel who commissioned Belshazzar's Feast.
Despite misspelling the written Hebrew text and arranging the characters vertically rather than from right to left, many of Rembrandt's intense interpretations of Bible tales emerged from his intimate knowledge of the Jewish community of Amsterdam who he felt were closer to the lives of the prophets than any of his Christian contemporaries. The result is that Belshazzar's Feast is a remarkable window into cosmopolitan life in the mid-seventeenth century and a testament to the artist's inquisitive and wide-reaching scope with regard to source and subject.
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